Can you believe it’s been 202 years since the marriage of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen? While you weren’t invited to the wedding, the anniversary is better known today as Oktoberfest. About 6 million people will fill the tents and bierhalles of Munich between Sept. 22 and Oct. 7. And to wash down all that Schweinshaxe, they’ll consume about 7 million liters of beer. But good luck finding a plane ticket for under a grand. Fortunately, there are many festive Oktoberfests across the United States.
The way to celebrate Oktoberfest is with German or German-style Festbiers—Märzen-style lagers marked by toasty maltiness with lingering Noble hops—but anywhere you celebrate will have some local beers. So don your lederhosen or your dirndl and don’t leave your kinder at home because Oktoberfest is a family affair. After enjoying a few liters in the sun, you’ll be doing the chicken dance with gusto or very possibly with Gustav.
Cincy is almost as much northern Kentucky as it is southern Ohio, but it’s all very German, which explains why it’s home to the single largest Oktoberfest celebration in America, attracting more than 500,000 people. Then again, that’s only one of a dozen celebrations in the area, including many church-sponsored events, according to Chris Nascimento, president of the Cincinnati Malt Infusers, one of two such large area beer clubs. The other is the Bloatarian Brewing League, one of the country’s oldest homebrew clubs, founded in 1986 by Ray Spangler, whose college roommate and brewing buddy is Randy Mosher, author of Tasting Beer. Bloatarianism is said to have started as a religion, which is fitting since beer is practically its own religion in Cincy. As is Cincinnati chili, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Locals almost dogmatically stick to German-style beers, though some heretics have seen the light (or rather pale, amber, and dark) of American craft beer. The first name in brewing is Christian Moerlein, dating back to 1853. Though it didn’t survive Prohibition, the brand was revived by Hudepohl Brewing and its successors until a revitalized Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. was formed in 2004 in the original brewery district, Over-the-Rhine (OTR). The company also makes heritage brands such as Hudy Delight and Little Kings Cream Ale as well as craft brands such as OTR Pale Ale and, of course, a Märzen called Fifth and Vine.
One of the buildings used to brew Hudepohl later was used to brew Samuel Adams Boston Lager under contract. It is now owned by the Boston Beer Co. Owner Jim Koch is a native son, but apparently Samuel Adams Cincinnati Lager didn’t have the same verve. No public tours or a tasting room is offered.
The newly opened Moerlein Lager House (115 Joe Nuxhall Way) is no mere brewpub. It is a complex of about 25,000 square feet on the banks of the Ohio River that owner Greg Hardman says will become the largest-grossing brewpub in the United States. It features a biergarten rivaled by few and a beer menu that delves far deeper than its own house brands.
In Newport, KY, Munich’s Hofbräuhaus (200 E. 3rd St.) opened its first American outpost and has found a large following. There’s room for 250 inside the bier-halle and an additional 400 revelers in the biergarten with an ideal view of the Cincy skyline. Look for the classics in terms of beer and cuisine, including a nightly oompah band.
On the opposite end of the brewing scale is Rivertown Brewing (607 Shepherd Drive #6), 12 miles north in Lockland. Ohio Breweries author Rick Armon says that Jason Roeper and Randy Schiltz (clearly not of the Schlitz beer baron family) founded the brewery in 2009. He says the two “had aspirations to open a brewpub. … They ended up scaling back (their) plans after banks and the Small Business Administration questioned why they wanted to get into the food business since they didn’t have previous restaurant experience. Instead, they decided to focus just on their passion: beer.” The brewery straddles the line between catering to local tastes with Bavarian lagers such as a Helles and Oktoberfest and brewing plenty of super hoppy ales. Armon’s pick is The Hop Bomber Pale Ale “with a spicy finish because of the use of rye malt.” There is Hop Baron Double IPA, and even a limited release called Pestilence, a sour brown ale with hibiscus petals. Look for these beers in bottles at specialty stores such as The Party Source (95 Riviera Drive, Bellevue, KY), just south of the Ohio River. The selection of craft beers is astounding. “What’s more impressive is that the store sells growlers and offers regular beer tastings,” Armon says.
You’ll also find Rivertown on draft at The Lackman (1237 Vine St.), where it is one of the 14 rotating taps in addition to at least 30 bottled offerings from the region and beyond. As for other beer bars, Fries Café (3247 Jefferson Ave.) is in the Clifton neighborhood next to the University of Cincinnati. Part beer garden, part homey backyard, it’s a hit with beer geeks and students.
Adjacent to Xavier University is Listermann Brewery Supply and Brewing Co. (1621 Dana Ave.). Owner Dan Listermann is a man of interesting hobbies, from taking up homebrewing in 1973 to raising racing pigeons. On my visit, he asked if the brewery was the filthiest I’d ever seen. He took the affirmative response as a point of pride. So visit to try the beer if you must because he does zero distribution, but don’t miss the keginal (a keg fashioned into a urinal).
Mt. Carmel Brewing is a former farmhouse in Mount Carmel, considered part of East Cincinnati. Rather than farmhouse-style beers, it makes clean beers such as blond and amber ales. Mike Dewey and his wife, Kathleen, have moved out of their house, leaving the brewery in an otherwise residential neighborhood, and have hired a full-time brewer in Mike Arnold. Armon recommends trying the Nut Brown Ale, widely available in local stores.
Locals are proud to support local and are generally fiercely local to their favorite chili parlor. Cincinnati chili is a specialty akin to red or green chile (with an E) in New Mexico. It consists of meaty chili spiced with cinnamon and other sweet flavors such as allspice or chocolate, then ladled over spaghetti or coneys (don’t call ’em chili dogs). No visit is complete without conducting your own taste test at fast food chains such as Skyline (about 200 locations), Gold Star (nearly 100 locations), and Dixie (few stores in northern Kentucky). Three-way chili has shredded cheese on top, but it’s possible to find up to seven-way, adding items such as beans, onions, oyster crackers and garlic.
For upscale dining, head to Teller’s of Hyde Park (2710 Erie Ave.). The Brown Ale Braised Pork Shank pairs nicely with German classics such as Schneider Aventinus Weizenbock or local treats such as Rockmill Brewing’s Tripel from Lancaster, near Columbus, OH.
Another institution is Graeter’s Ice Cream. Scoop shops abound, and flavors such as Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip feature distinct dark chocolate chunks. The shops also make great floats. So, say you’re staying at The Cincinnatian Hotel (601 Vine St.) in the central business district less than a mile from OTR, you can pick up a pint of ice cream from the Graeter’s at 511 Walnut St., then a growler of stout or porter from the Rock Bottom Brewery (10 Fountain Square) a block away, before walking back to your room, just one block farther.
New Ulm, MN
Cities such as Cincinnati and Milwaukee have larger German-American populations, but tiny New Ulm—population 13,500—is the most German city in America per capita based on the U.S. Census. It’s so German that it supports two Oktoberfests simultaneously. One is a ticketed event at the Holiday Inn, and the other is downtown and free. But it’s not the biggest event in this rural town. That accomplishment belongs to Bock Fest at the August Schell Brewing Co., America’s second-oldest surviving brewery founded in 1860 and still in the hands of Schell’s fifth- and sixth-generation descendents.
In an age when most production breweries are in nondescript business parks, a visit to the August Schell Brewery (1860 Schell’s Road) begins with a stroll through the gardens with peacocks strutting around next to a large pen with deer reportedly descended from the same line that August kept, the inspiration behind its Deer Brand beer. While there’s great history here, the hospitality center is new, though some of the memorabilia housed inside are quite old. Of course, visiting in the fall demands drinking Oktoberfest, while visits in the winter call for drinking the bock. In fact, try it “poked.” Having a red hot iron poker placed in your winter lager warms it, creates caramelized malts and adds a smoky flavor you’re not likely to find anywhere outside the fest.
Terry Sveine is a native New Ulmer and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau manager. He says that New Ulm—founded as a German utopia that didn’t establish an English-language newspaper until after World War I—is home to Turner Hall (102 S. State St.).
“The Turner movement started in Germany,” Sveine says. Promoting the concept of “sound mind, sound body and general good German fellowship,” the Rathskeller is Minnesota’s oldest bar. Today, diners and imbibers can enjoy Gemütlichkeit ( a sense of coziness) while gazing at 19th century murals of Old World scenes. Turner Hall remains the epicenter of social and business activity for the town.
Proffering an authentic German cuisine is Otto’s Feierhaüs & Bierstube (2101 S. Broadway St.). It is tucked into the Holiday Inn but operated separately. When Sveine last visited, he enjoyed the Landjäger, a tasty wurst made from pork and beef. If you’re hungrier and feeling old school, try the Hasenpfeffer, rabbit braised with spices in red wine and fruit, practically a mainstay of the German-American diet before World War I. Otto’s serves it with sweet and sour cabbage and housemade spätzle.
Veigel’s Kaiserhoff (221 N. Minnesota St.) is another institution that has been here since 1938 and features a broad menu heavy on German classics such as Jägerschnitzel, or just go for the Stout Burger. Either way, order the sauerkraut balls to start. Schell’s beers are served, but so are wines from Morgan Creek Vineyards, the local winery started by one of August Schell’s other great-great-grandsons. It makes some German-style wines such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. And for the kinder, the restaurant carries the Ulmer Brewing Co.’s soda, contract brewed at the Schell Brewery.
Pop directly behind the Kaiserhoff for an after-dinner brew at the Pub and Patio (225 N. Minnesota St.), which has a gorgeous back bar about 100 years old made by Brunswick of billiard table fame. Across the street is The Lamplighter (214 N. Minnesota St.) for a family-friendly atmosphere. All these bars are hospitable to locals and visitors alike. Sveine adds to the list Rodney’s Tavern (6 S. Minnesota St.).
One of downtown’s main attractions is the 45-foot-tall glockenspiel that plays daily at noon, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Three blocks away is the B&L Bar (15 N. Minnesota St.), operating as a saloon since 1897, although it served only near beer during Prohibition. Schell’s is rumored to have made that near beer.
When it comes time to go schluffen, rest your weary head at the Holiday Inn (2101 S. Broadway St.). Those who seek unique accommodations may balk at the idea, but the host of the town’s original Oktoberfest boasts German-themed décor and fills up quickly (see sidebar for details). For more down-home lodging, the Deutsche Strasse (404 S. German St.) is a B&B perfectly named for the street it’s on. Old-world hospitality with delicious breakfasts included can be enjoyed a four-block walk from downtown.
Though New Ulm is understandably dominated by Schell’s, consider visiting comparatively off-the-beaten-path breweries in the area. If driving, check out Worth Brewing just below the state line in Northwood, IA (826 Central Ave.) run by the husband-and-wife team of Peter Ausenhus and Margaret Bishop, a fifth-generation brewing family. Their Herminator Dunkelweizenbock should be ready before the fest. Brand new is Okoboji Brewing, in Spirit Lake, IA, a destination only the most ardent beer traveler can claim to have visited. Another new brewery, Heist Brewing in Brookings, is one of South Dakota’s few craft breweries. Unlike the Germanic beers in New Ulm, these New World brewers make beers such as Tea Off, similar to a Witbier with green tea added. On your way back to New Ulm, be sure to detour to Lucan, MN, population 191, home of Brau Brothers Brewing, which features a hopyard and estate barley field.
San Luis Obispo County, California
While German immigrants settled everywhere in the United States, their influence was less west of the Mississippi, which may be why Germanic traditions there seem to take on multicultural flair. By the time they reach California, anything goes. Firestone-Walker Brewing Co., the largest brewery in Central California, throws a festival with some authentic events and some that would be less recognizable to Prince Ludwig and his bride. The region is dominated by vineyards and wineries where the Firestone-Walker Brewery developed as an outgrowth of the Firestone Winery. The brewery features traditional British ales employing oak barrel fermentation, so the party is called Oaktoberfest.
Firestone-Walker’s production facility is in Paso Robles (1400 Ramada Drive), 30 miles north of San Luis Obispo. The company just opened a restaurant adjacent to the brewery that focuses on fresh and local fare, specializing in grilled meats and pizzas that perfectly pair with its beers. San Luis Obispo is halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles (10 miles inland from Pismo Beach) on Highway 101, one of the most gorgeous scenic highways in America, especially when it overlaps with Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. The Firestone Taproom, the original brewpub, is 60 miles south of San Luis Obispo in Buellton (620 McMurray Road), just north of Santa Barbara. Brothers-in-law Adam Firestone and David Walker founded the brewery in 1996. Considering the brewery has earned dozens of medals at the Great American Beer Fest and World Beer Cup combined, brewmaster Matthew Brynildson has earned a reputation as master of the pale ale (Double Barrel Ale, Pale 31, and Union Jack IPA), which makes their autumn festival occasion far hoppier than is traditional. But they do roll out barrels of Märzen lager promotionally called Oaktoberfest.
This being the West Coast, Dave Louw, who is active with the San Luis Obispo Brewers (SLOB) homebrew club, lists a few new, smaller breweries in the Central Coast. In Buellton is Figueroa Mountain Brewing (45 Industrial Way in Buellton), which Louw recommends
Many of their beers are in the West Coast pale ale style, but look for their Danish Red Lager to keep the Oktoberfest bier theme going. In San Luis Obispo proper, Creekside Brewing (1040 Broad St.) is where Louw enjoys the Double Dark Stout and Bird of Prey IPA. House beers go into many of the brewpub’s dishes from its Rosemary and Ale Porkchop to the classic Creekside Stout Burger (topped with double-smoked bacon). Nearly 30 miles west of Paso Robles over a fun, mountainous drive along Highway 46, is Cambria Brewing in the quiet beach town for which it’s named. When you visit, make sure to check out the elephant seals along the beach, as well as Hearst Castle a few minutes away in San Simeon. Built by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Castle includes a zoo with zebras roaming the hillsides.
As for tap houses in the area, Louw recommends The Pour House (1331 Vendels Circle, Paso Robles). Tucked away behind the Firestone brewery and Spike’s Pub (570 Higuera St., SLO), it has a wide selection of beer and some pub food choices. If you want to pair food with local brews, pop into Eureka Burger (1141 Chorro St.) just three blocks from Spike’s, with excellent gourmet burgers and a great selection of beers and bourbons, Louw’s personal favorite is the Jalapeño Egg Burger washed down with a Fire-stone Union Jack IPA. For a more romantic setting including patio dining creekside, Louw recommends Novo (726 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo). While the farm-to-table California cuisine restaurant has a multi-page wine menu, the beer list is no afterthought. Come morning, The Breakfast Buzz (295 Santa Rosa St., San Luis Obispo) is the place to soak up the alcohol. It prepares awesome breakfast burritos at good prices.
Remember, this is the Oktoberfest option for the nontraditionalist. When leaving the Old World behind and going west, young man or woman, head as far west as possible. Forgo the bratwursts for some tacos, Cali-fusion style, at Taco Temple (2680 Main St., Morro Bay) where the Pacific Coast Highway returns to the beach. Louw says the beer selection is small but good. Up the coast is Cayucos, an excellent spot for surfing, picnics and running. If your family vacation includes Fido, it’s a dog-friendly stretch of beach. Oktoberfest may welcome the onset of autumn, but here you can enjoy the endless summer.
Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey.